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With Rebels threatening Washington in 1864, a disgraced Union general held the line at the Monocacy River—saving the capital city and his career.

For the beleaguered Confederacy, Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s raid into the Shenandoah Valley in the summer of 1864 was a source of optimism. For the Unionists in Baltimore and Washington, it was a source of anxiety. And for Union Major General Lew Wallace, saddled with an administrative role since falling from political and military favor, it was a source of possible redemption.

Commanding the Middle Department and VIII Corps, headquartered in Baltimore, Md., Wallace’s corps comprised 2,400 green 100-day men from Maryland and Ohio and a few Maryland home guards under Brig. Gen. Erastus B. Tyler. When this small force, bolstered by valuable last-minute reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac, met Early’s army at the Monocacy River in July 1864, Wallace knew it was the only Union defense against an invasion of the nation’s capital. Here was an opportunity to resurrect his military reputation.

Wallace’s career had stagnated since a glaring failure at the Battle of Shiloh, Tenn., which Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant never fully forgave. At the war’s outbreak, Wallace, the son of a former Indiana governor and congressman, had been appointed adjutant general of Indiana, and within weeks he had raised more than double the state’s quota of volunteers. Serving ably as colonel of the 11th Indiana Volunteers, he was promoted to brigadier general in 1861. Wallace continued to merit his rapid rise by distinguished service at Fort Donelson, Tenn., under Grant in 1862. There his masterful deployment of infantry and artillery plugged a gap in the Union right flank and cut off the escape of 15,000 Confederates defending the fort. Wallace’s efforts led to a successful counterattack, the enemy’s eventual surrender and—on Grant’s recommendation—Wallace’s promotion to major general.

But Wallace’s stock fell as quickly as it had risen. Two months after Donelson, Wallace commanded the 3rd Brigade of Grant’s Army of the Tennessee at Shiloh on April 6 and 7, 1862. During the first day of battle, Grant called for Wallace to move his division up. As the hours ticked by without Wallace’s appearance, the Confederates pushed Grant’s troops back toward the Tennessee River. Armed with a second order from Grant, a messenger found Wallace and had to re direct his line of march. After a long countermarch, his men finally reached the line, but too late to be of use that day. Whatever the reason for Wallace’s delay, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, Union general-in-chief, removed him from field command—an act Wallace never forgave. He served as an administrator for the next two years. Then, in March 1864, after the defenses Wallace helped prepare at Cincinnati dissuaded Confederate Maj. Gen. E. Kirby Smith from attacking, he was given command of the VIII Corps and the Middle Department, which consisted of Maryland, Delaware and Union-occupied Virginia.

“At last the long wait, the feverish impatience to be recognized…the brutal trampling upon my pride came to an end,” Wallace wrote later of receiving his orders. “When at length I heard the particulars of how the order came about, I was all the more pleased. It was President [Abraham] Lincoln’s own suggestion—good enough in itself. Then, when I heard that General Halleck had called upon the President, and in person protested against the assignment, there was an added sweetness to it.”

Not long after Wallace received his new appointment, the fortunes of war had swung toward the Union. Beginning in May, Grant, by then a lieutenant general in command of all the Union armies, had ordered the Army of the Potomac to pound its way into northern Virginia. Meanwhile, Federal troops occupied a huge section of Georgia, and vast regions of the western Confederacy were without troops to defend them. Still, Northern citizens saw no end to the conflict, and dissatisfaction with military and political leaders was so widespread that President Lincoln’s reelection was in jeopardy.

Jubal Early’s summer raid into the the Shenandoah Valley was really a desperate attempt by Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee to relieve pressure on the besieged cities of Richmond and Petersburg and capitalize on the Northern discontent. At the same time, Union Maj. Gen. David Hunter’s troops were threatening Confederate communications and supply lines in the Shenandoah. Though his army already was stretched to the breaking point, Lee saw no option but to detach Early’s corps to disperse Hunter’s troops.

Early’s arrival in the valley in June 1864 caused Hunter to retreat without a fight and forced him to withdraw westward, leaving the path through the valley to Washington and Baltimore unprotected. Suddenly, Lee’s desperate defensive foray had caused an opportunity for an offensive raid that would threaten the capital of the United States.

Early’s corps met little resistance as it reached Winchester, Va., on July 2. There Early received orders from Lee to cross the Potomac and destroy sections of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Over the next few days, the Confederates forced the evacuation of Harpers Ferry, crossed into Mary land, captured Hagerstown and resumed their march toward Frederick and the important B&O link just south of that town at Monocacy Junction.

Wallace, alerted by B&O boss John Garrett that Hunter had retreated and that Confederate raids in the area had increased, realized he was the only Federal commander close enough to throw a roadblock in front of Early’s march on Washington.

Wallace fully understood the potential ramifications of a Confederate force loose in the Union capital. The Naval Yard would be burned, and the U.S. Treasury and storehouses looted. He thought “of prestige lost, of the faith that had so sublimely sustained the loyal people through years crowded with sacrifices…now struck dead” and of France and England recognizing the Confederacy as a legitimate government and entering the war on the Southern side.

Terrible as these thoughts were, Wallace wrote that none instilled “such instantaneous hardening of purpose as an apparition of President Lincoln, cloaked and hooded, stealing like a malefactor from the back door of the White House just as some gray-garbed Confederate brigadier burst in the front door.”

Without waiting for orders or authorization, Wallace scraped together what forces he could and sent them by rail to Monocacy Junction. Lieutenant Colonel David Clendenin’s detachment of 8th Illinois Cavalry arrived the next day to provide critical reconnaissance and reinforcements. Brigadier General James Ricketts and his two veteran VI Corps brigades, sent by Grant at Wallace’s request, joined him there on July 8. Altogether Wallace had approximately 5,500 men.

On July 7 and 8, Early’s men struck railroads, bridges and military stores around Frederick, Md., and demanded a $200,000 ransom to spare the city from the torch. The Confederate attack against Wallace came on July 9, as expected.

Early’s 14,000 men, dubbed the Army of the Valley, lined up on the western bank of the Monocacy River. Wallace positioned Ricketts’ 3,500 veterans on his left flank, which he anticipated would bear the brunt of the enemy’s attack, and where they would ford the river and push toward the Washington Pike. “It is the post of honor,” Wallace told Ricketts. “There the enemy will do his best fighting.”

He left to his less experienced men the task of protecting his line of retreat to Baltimore, which Wallace knew his troops would have to use; he harbored no illusions of owning the field at the end of the day. His hope was to delay Early’s advance long enough for reinforcements to arrive in Washington. “To stay without reference to the odds against me, and to do all possible to hamper and hinder the march of the Confederates, and force a showing of their purpose and strength—such was my resolution,” Wallace later wrote in his autobiography.

On the Confederate right, Brig. Gen. John McCausland’s cavalry discovered a shallow spot in the river and crossed, threatening Ricketts’ left. Federal skirmishers across the Monocacy rushed back over the river on a railroad bridge to join Ricketts’ main body in the wake of the onslaught.

“The enemy came upon us with such overwhelming numbers and desperation it seemed that we must be swept into the river,” wrote the 10th Vermont’s George Davis of their flight across the bridge. “It seemed ages before we reached the other side. One poor fellow fell through the (railway) bridge into the river, 40 feet below.”

Ricketts’ division steeled itself to face McCausland, whose dismounted Confederate cavalry charged through a field of young corn. As the Rebels neared, the Bluecoats rose and fired in unison. When the smoke cleared, only trodden corn and a few riderless horses were visible. “[T]he whole Rebel line disappeared as if swallowed up in the earth,” wrote Glenn Worthington, whose father’s farm was in the middle of the battlefield. “The attacking force had vanished.”

Ricketts’ men repulsed McCausland’s repeated attacks with deadly precision. “Out of one hundred of our regiment that went into the fight,” wrote James McChesney of the 14th Virginia Cavalry, “we had twenty-two men killed and wounded in less than twenty minutes.”

Directing the battle from a bluff, Wallace was pleased with the Federal veterans’ performance, even as he knew the superior Confederate numbers must win out. “So far victory,” he wrote four hours into the battle. “I sent an orderly to Ricketts with congratulations, and then consulted my watch. Was I not fighting for time?”

Wallace counted the hours as they ticked by, “Not once, but many times, much as I fancy a miser counts his gold pieces.” Those hours were more precious than gold to the citizens of Washington, breathlessly awaiting 5,000 troops that Grant had dispatched to defend the city.

Early directed Maj. Gen. John Gordon’s infantrymen across the ford to join McCausland’s forces, driving back the Union left. “We had gone only a few steps when we came in view of the enemy lying behind a post-and-rail fence, about 125 yards in our front,” remembered Confederate Private James H. Hutcheson. “We…walked to the fence, the enemy still lying on the ground behind it, shooting at us for all they knew how. We stuck our guns between the rails and put a volley into them.”

Attacking from the foothold they achieved on the east bank of the Monocacy, the Confederates next forced back the center of the Union line, allowing Maj. Gen. Stephen Ramseur’s men to cross via the railroad bridge and join the onslaught.

Outflanked and outnumbered, Ricketts retreated northward across the Washington Pike toward the road to Baltimore. Realizing the tide of battle was turning against him at last, Wallace ordered a general retreat. Holding that line of retreat fell to Colonel Allison Brown of the 149th Ohio Infantry.

“I received an order from Major-General Wallace to hold the bridge over the Monocacy…to the last extremity, and when I was pressed so hard that nothing more could be done, to command my men to disperse and take care of themselves,” Brown recorded.

By dusk the battle was over. Wallace had lost 1,800 men, killed, wounded or captured. Early estimated his losses at 800 killed or wounded. Their delaying mission accomplished, the Union troops straggled toward Baltimore. Early’s men, exhausted, eschewed pursuit to prepare instead for the next day’s march to Washington.

In his memoirs, Grant even noted Wal lace’s contributions in defense of the capital. “General Wallace contributed on this occasion, by the defeat of the troops under him, a greater benefit to the cause than often falls to the lot of a commander of an equal force to render by means of a victory,” he wrote.

Early’s victories in the Shenandoah reminded the South of Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s stunning successes in the same valley two years earlier. They had also accomplished Lee’s original goal of forcing Grant to divert some of his force to deal with Early.

On July 10, Lincoln telegraphed Grant that Washington’s military command believed the “troops” in the capital—a few 100-day recruits, invalids, stragglers, presidential guards, bureaucrats and civilians—might be able to man the strong ramparts and hold the city, but would be of no use in the field. The president strongly suggested that Grant lead a sufficient force to Washington to deal with the Confederate threat. Grant already had sent the rest of VI Corps under Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright from his headquarters at Petersburg and had ordered the XIX Corps up from Louisiana.

Fighting heat and exhaustion, Early’s men arrived within sight of Fort Stevens, in the Washington suburbs, around noon on July 11. Observing the ramparts feebly manned, Early ordered an immediate attack. But as more defenders filed into the works, he changed his mind and ordered a reconnaissance, with the attack to begin the next morning. But by dawn, Wright’s VI Corps had landed, and Early balked at facing the Army of the Potomac veterans.

Washington was saved, thanks largely to the day Wallace’s men had won in their defeat at Monocacy. Grant put their role in perspective. “There is no telling how much this result was contributed to by General Lew Wallace’s leading what might well be considered an almost forlorn hope,” he wrote. “If Early had been but one day earlier, he might have entered the capital before the arrival of the re-enforcements I had sent.”

Early and his small force certainly could not have captured Washington, even had they arrived a day earlier. But had that day been available, a rested, reorganized and revitalized Confederate force could have overrun the fortifications and been free to loot and ravage the city before being driven off.

Perhaps more important, a penetration of Washington could have provided the people of Atlanta and Richmond—themselves threatened with enemy invasion—a much-needed dose of resolve.

Early defended his decision to call off his first ordered attack. “I did not arrive in front of the fortifications until after noon, and then my troops were exhausted, and it required time to bring them up into line….Soon a column of enemy filed into [the works]…and skirmishers were thrown out in front, while an artillery fire was opened on us from a number of batteries.” His detractors, Early argued, should not criticize him for not capturing Washington, but praise him for having “the audacity to approach it as I did, with the small force under my command….Not one moment was spent in idleness.”

With Wright’s arrival and the threat to the city much mitigated, Lincoln visited Fort Stevens. As the president stood to get a better view of the skirmishing, an army surgeon was shot by a sniper. Wright respectfully requested Lincoln take cover. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have dispensed with respect, shouting, “Get down, you damned fool!”

Despite saving Washington from the ravages of the Confederate raiders, and regaining Grant’s grudging respect, Wallace never was restored to field command and spent the rest of the war in administration. He later served on the military court that convicted and condemned the Lincoln assassination conspirators and was president of the court that sent Confederate Captain Henry Wirz—commandant at the infamous Andersonville prison—to the gallows.

After his resignation from the U.S. Army in 1865, Wallace helped to raise troops and procure arms for Mexican liberals in their fight against Emperor Maximilian. He served as governor of New Mexico Territory (1878-81) and U.S. minister to Turkey (1881-85). A writer since his early 20s, when he wrote to ease the boredom of working in a clerk’s office, the general went on to publish seven major works. Lew Wallace is, of course, most remembered as the author of the bestselling novel Ben Hur, published in 1880.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here